Editor's Note: This article is part of our annual Women in Charity series. Check back throughout the month for more stories of dynamic Muslim women working in various charitable endeavors and why they do what they do.
Learning is an essential part of the Islamic faith. The Prophet Muhammad (saw) encouraged his followers to continually learn by saying:
“Seeking knowledge is an obligation upon every Muslim.” [Sunan Ibn Mājah 224]
Muslim women remain at the forefront of establishing educational systems and learning opportunities for our youth in the United States. The first Muslim school
was located in the home of Clara Muhammad, where she served as a teacher. And, Muslim women of different backgrounds continue to serve as school administrators, teachers and supporters of various Islamic schools throughout the country. Umm Juwayriyah (Maryam Sullivan) is one of these fantastic Muslim women educators who strives to make sure Muslim children receive an education that centers them and their identities as worshippers of Allah (S). Her program, Muslim Girls Read
[MGR], promotes literacy to Muslim children.
Umm Juwayriyah has been a teacher in public and Islamic schools for decades. She has spent more than 20 years honing her writing talents to help her community and show that there are no limitations for a Muslim woman with drive. She is also a published author
who established the foundations for Islamic urban fiction writing.
She is an educator and the owner of Kanz Enrichment
online, a supplemental educational service. Her dedication to education and writing makes her a gem to American Muslim culture and a leader in the area of Muslim literature and literacy in the country.
Umm Juwayriyah launched the Muslim Girls Read program, which is based in Massachusetts, to provide children in inner-city Islamic schools with Muslim-authored and themed books where they see themselves, learn about their faith and embrace their identities as Muslims.
In addition to providing books to Islamic schools, Muslim Girls Read offers workshops to Muslim children, parents and educators. They have weekly online ta’leems (learning circles), book clubs and their Global Pen Pals Connect program, all for free.
I spoke with Umm Juwayriyah about Muslim Girls Read and why she started this initiative, the challenges she and her team have encountered, and why promoting literacy through a Muslim lens is so critical for the education and mental health of young girls and women.
Why 'Muslim Girls Read'
Umm Juwayriyah shared with me the catalyst for her launching Muslim Girls Read.
“About seven years ago, when I was living in Kuwait, a young single Muslim mother in Philadelphia suffered a fire in her apartment,” she explains. “She requested books for her 8-year-old daughter because all of their books were lost in the fire. Her daughter loved to read and she had a great collection of books. [From that situation], Muslim Girls Read, Inc came to life, and we donated 25 books to the family.
Ilm Academy students benefit from books proviced through Muslim Girls Read.
“It opened our eyes and hearts to the lack of literary resources,” she says, “especially Muslim-authored books, that American Muslims in the inner-city don't have access to.”
According to Umm Juwayriyah, the organization has provided books to individual families, libraries and more than 15 Muslim schools in cities like Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Atlanta, Houston and Indianapolis. Muslim books authored by Muslims are integral to our children’s education, Umm Juwayriyah explains.
“Books written by Muslims and featuring Muslim characters are important to Muslim children's literacy development and overall education because the representation and culturally relevant and responsive narratives affirm and allow children to relate content to their cultural context,” she says.
This helps ensure that Muslim children see themselves and their faith in the pages they are reading and encourages their learning about Islam, says Umm Juwayriyah which in turn can help boost their reading development and foster their Muslim identities. Considering all this, providing books with Muslim characters and written by Muslims is just as important as the Islamic learning institutions across the country, she argues.
Islamic Schools Need Books
Many Muslim schools struggle financially to keep their doors open. Things like supplies, including books, remain in demand. Umm Juwayriyah elaborates on why getting books into schools is hard, but she continues the work.
“Money is the biggest challenge MGR faces in getting Muslim-authored books into Muslim schools,” she says. “Muslim schools are private, nonprofit entities already operating at a deficit. They don't get sponsorships through the big box publishers, so there aren't any connections to authors for book readings or giveaways.”
She adds, “Muslim authors aren't incentivized to donate their work because Muslim schools aren't included in marketing promotions. Self-published Muslim authors don't often have the means to giveaway books.
“[Unfortunately] there aren't any other nonprofits doing the work MGR does that we can collaborate with to expand our reach. But, Alhamdulillah, now that MGR has gained 501c3 status, we are diligently working on expanding our marketing, creating significant gifts campaigns, looking out for grants and improving our communication and presence in the global Muslim community,” says Umm Juwayriyah.
“This year, Insha'Allah, Muslim Girls Read, Inc. is preparing for our first in-person Spring Fling Formal for Muslim teens, a Ramadan iftar and staging our first play written and directed by Muslim youth in the DMV (Washington Metropolitan Area).”
Muslim Girls Read continues to work to provide families and institutions with Muslim books. Their dedication is integral to culturally-specific literacy in American Muslim school systems. Educators and many parents understand the vital role of books in their children’s lives. Literary initiatives like Muslim Girls Reads and the work of Umm Juwayriyah remain critical to promoting Muslim children learning to love reading, their faith and themselves.
If you want to support the work of Umm Juwayriyah and Muslim Girls Read in any capacity, please email them at Muslimgirlsread1@gmail.com,